Self-Nullification and Lowliness: Pirkei Avot 3:7

Rabbi Elazar of Bartota would say: Give Him that which is His, for you and all that is yours are His. As David says: “For everything comes from You, and from Your own hand, we give to You” (1 Chronicles 29:14)

 

This mishnah is one of the central sources for the two most important traits needed for a rectified life—self-nullification and lowliness.[1] With these two traits, not only is life easier to navigate,[2] it also allows us to live our lives with the constant awareness that we are standing before God. The first step is to recognize that all of our possessions come from God; in the language of our mishnah, “all that is yours, is His.” The sages also related this recognition to a verse in Job, “Who has preceded [to give] Me [God], that I should repay him?”[3] (מִי הִקְדִּימַנִי וַאֲשַׁלֵּם). The sages provide examples for this principle, “Who praised Me before I gave him a soul? Who made a mezuzah for Me before I gave him a house? Who made a lulav [the Four Species taken on Sukkot] for Me before I gave him money?”[4] These are all examples of how all the mitzvot we perform are all only thanks to the fact that the Almighty has given us the means to perform them: a soul with which to praise Him, a house to put a mezuzah on, money in order to purchase the Four Species, and so on. Rabbi Elazar even adds that our very person, our life, is also a gift from God, and thus all that we do—not just mitzvot—belongs to God, “For you… are His.” Thus, self-nullification is the experience of being nothing before God and that all are actions are actually to His credit. Self-nullification leads us to cling and devote ourselves to the infinitely good nature of the Almighty.

Lowliness, on the other hand, begins with the experience of the “I,” as seemingly independent from God, but then recognizing that this “I” that we are is nothing but a lowly and empty vessel without God’s Presence. This is the meaning of Rabbi Elazar’s statement, “all that is yours is His,” meaning that there are things that are yours, but without Divine help from above, your self and your actions remain in their innate lowly state. Recognizing our lowliness and serving God with it allows us to strive to elevate ourselves and connect with the Divine mission that God gives us and all our possessions and actions.

What’s in a name?

The name of the sage in this mishnah is Rabbi Elazar man of Bartota (רַבִּי אֶלְעָזָר אִישׁ בַּרְתּוֹתָא).[5] The last letters of his name spell the word, אַשְׁרֵי, which means to walk a straight path as in the verse, “Happy is the man who has not walked in the counsel of the wicked,  nor stood in the way of sinners, nor sat in the seat of the scornful.”[6] By means of the service of lowliness and self-nullification, a person goes from strength to strength on the straight path of separating himself from evil (the service of lowliness) and ascends to the service of cleaving to God (self-nullification).

Two Biblical figures express the traits of self-nullification and lowliness: Moses personifies self-nullification and cleaving to God. He is called the “man of God”[7]. The sages explain that, “from his lower half he is a man but from the half of his body and up, he is Godly.”[8] Moses was so connected to God that the sages said that, “the Shechinah—the Divine Presence—speaks from his throat”[9]. King David personifies the attribute of lowliness, as he testified about himself, “I will be lowly in my eyes”[10] after he joyously danced with all his might before God. Accordingly, Rabbi Elazar ends this mishnah with the words of King David in Chronicles, “For everything comes from You, and from Your own hand we give to You,”[11] a verse that expresses the service of “Whatever is yours, is His,” the service of lowliness—“for all is from You.”

[1]. These two traits are the topic of our article, “Rectifying the Ego” (or Perek Be’avodat Hashem in the original Hebrew. A translation of the article can be found at http://bit.ly/perek-translation and excurses on it can be found at http://bit.ly/perekbe. A full course on Rectifying the Ego can be found here: http://bit.ly/rectifying-course.

[2]. Life is full of ups and downs—successes and failures. Lowliness safeguards us so that when we encounter failure, we do not crash completely. Selflessness ensures that when we have been privileged to succeed, we do not become prideful and arrogant.

[3]. Job 41:3.

[4]. Vayikra Rabbah 27:2.

[5]. Some of the commentators (Magen Avot from the Rashbatz and Anaf Yosef) say that this is Rabbi Elazar Ish Birta who is mentioned in Ta’anit 24a. There the Talmud tells of how he performed the mitzvah of charity:

Whenever the charity collectors would see Elazar of the village of Birta, they would hide from him, as any money Elazar had with him he would give them, and they did not want to take all his property. One day, Elazar went to the market to purchase what he needed for his daughter’s dowry. The charity collectors saw him and hid from him. He went and ran after them, saying to them: I adjure you, tell me, in what mitzva are you engaged? They said to him: We are collecting money for the wedding of an orphan boy and an orphan girl. He said to them: I swear by the Temple service that they take precedence over my daughter. He took everything he had with him and gave it to them. He was left with one single dinar, with which he bought himself wheat, and he then ascended to his house and threw it into the granary. Elazar’s wife came and said to her daughter: What has your father brought? She said to her mother: Whatever he brought he threw into the granary. She went to open the door of the granary, and saw that the granary was full of wheat, so much so that it was coming out through the doorknob, and the door would not open due to the wheat. The granary had miraculously been completely filled. Elazar’s daughter went to the study hall and said to her father: Come and see what He Who loves You, the Almighty, has performed for you. He said to her: I swear by the Temple service, as far as you are concerned this wheat is consecrated property, and you have a share in it only as one of the poor Jews. He said this because he did not want to benefit from a miracle.

Based on this identification and this story, we can say that Rabbi Elazar indeed practiced what he preached.

[6]. Psalms 1:1.

[7] Deuteronomy 33:1.

[8] Devarim Rabbah 11:4.

[9] As per the Zohar 3:232, Shemot Rabbah 3:15 and elsewhere.

[10] 2 Samuel 6:22.

[11]. 1 Chronicles 29:14.

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